My wife described it as a “highly pixelated 80’s-looking game” and expressed disbelief as to its attraction.And to be honest at the beginning I sort f thought the same. At the same time I was aware of the immense appeal of the game to my younger students. My PLN (Personal Learning Network) has been flooded with posts and reviews of the game for years and I have mostly ignored them, not really considering spending time to understand it.
Until one day one group of students submitted their homework as a screencast of a reading comprehension task they had been given. I was already impressed with the way they retold a story in Minecraft. But when I asked them to explain to the group the process of creating the movie, I was simply blown away. While most students chose the relatively simple solution of writing a story or creating a cartoon or comic strip, these three boys spent hours understanding the story, setting up a server, negotiating over Skype to be online and choreographing their actions to every detail, recorded and published a YouTube video of it and then em/bedded it in the class blog. The complexity of the process and the amount of time they spent “doing their homework” was astonishing.
This was the moment I realised that ignoring Minecraft as an educational tool would be a huge oversight. I started encouraging the students to think of different ways in which they could use their Minecraft skills to submit assignments. In order to be able to help them I realised that I had to try to understand what Minecraft was all about, so I decided to join this MOOC and the mOOC initiated by Vance Stevens as part of the TESOL CALL Electronic Village Online community.
I am of a generation that sort of missed the emergence consoles, it was never really an option for me get to know how the game worked on this platform. Building a Raspberry Pi is way beyond my technical expertise and while it is a direction I will at one stage try to get a grasp of, this did not seem to be a be the best way to experiment with Minecraft either. I was pretty much left with the choice of the PC version and/or the tablet one. First I was quite inclined to go for the latter and download the app and use my iPad to play around but before doing so I decided to ask my students for advice. Without hesitation they suggested that I download the programme for my PC. Among the advantages they mentioned the opportunity of playing on a server, which is not possible on the tablet version, also playing with others in distant locations is much easier on a computer than on a handheld device which only offers multi-player options for people sharing the same wireless network – if I understood correctly. While I am planning to familiarise myself with the iOS version eventually, for the time being the PC version constitutes a big enough challenge for the time being. It was also mentioned that the updates and improvements of the computer version are much more straightforward and less disruptive than the app updates. I also believe that first becoming familiar with one platform will give me more transferable skills than simultaneously experimenting with a variety of platforms.unknown


This very simple chart only focuses on sales of licenses over different platforms and it is not based on actual usage data, it is only my assumption that, like many application downloaded on portable devices (iOS and Android), the Pocket Edition with its more attractive pricing (around £10 compared with the £23 for the PC version) is used less than the PC/Mac version. It was also quite revealing that when I asked my students to use Minecraft in the classroom, they all brought their laptops, rather than their handheld devices.



In conclusion, as a ‘noob’ I have departed on my journey into mining and crafting on a PC and I intend to focus on this platform before venturing into discovering how the game work on others. It has been a very steep learning curve and I have greatly enjoyed the personal and professional challenge the game has posed. This journey has given me ample opportunities to discover my own limitations and my primary aim is to challenge those limitations before I can pass any meaningful judgement as to the limitations of  the platforms themselves.

I decided to start a series of posts on the things I find most difficult in my professional activities.

I’m sick of grades. Here’s why and here’s what I do and what I would do. This is the first part of a series of posts where I look at aspects of my professional life which I find difficult to correlate with my beliefs and principles. I have to emphasise that I love my school and it is the best place I have ever worked at. This is why i dare to look at things I would do differently. That’s because I believe that only people who have opinions and criticise even the things they like with the desire to make it better are the ones who move the world forward. I also believe that as long as the things I say aim at making teaching more rewarding and learning more engaging and self-directed, my criticism is what needs to be done to describe a different attitude and a different order or importance, which relies on the human factor rather than the administrative requirements. If you ask me, I care much more about how my child feels like getting on and off the school bus than what the inspector says about the school. Outstanding is a category my child can give to their school (yes, even at the age of 5), not some box ticking person going around the building mildly irritated by all the noise and chaos of a school full of kids….

With the end of the term approaching, there is more and more stress around the school, teachers and students are equally overworked and worried about meeting requirements.

The school where I teach is not unique in the sense that it places an inordinate emphasis on grades and summative assessment. Tough end-of unit tests and as low as possible averages seem to be the requirement, proving to the students what they have not learnt rather than emphasising their successes is what these tests achieve. During this time students write 5-10 of these a week in 5-10 different subjects. I know I would not be able to do this.

My problems with this rush of tests is:

1) It measures nothing but a momentary state of knowledge that ceases  to exist the minute students put down their pens.

2) It breeds a culture of cheating, cutting corners and results in equally under-performing in every subject, even the ones students like because there is no subject you like so much when you are 12-17 that you would spend extra time learning.

3) It demoralises students.

4) It turns teachers into testing machines and they become less sociable, supportive and start demanding things they haven’t actually taught.

5) The time spent on preparing, conducting, discussing and correcting these tests could be spent much more usefully on actually finding out what students are interested in and helping them learn about it.

6) The environmental factor – some might laugh at this but an average BIG TEST is at least 6 photocopied pages, at our small school, say 80 students write 5 of these a week. That’s 30 pages per student per week, that 2400 pages (12 kgs of paper), that’s 24000 litres of water wasted – in the desert!

So what do I do?

Well, one has to compromise, so this is what I do for a big test.

1) We call it Cheese – because it sounds better than Test.

2) We develop them together with the students. They work in groups and look at different activity types and tasks in the book and then produce their own activities. They spend 2-4 classroom periods doing this. Their work is saved in Google Documents on the class Google account.

3) The teacher gets to facilitate, help and advise while the students are developing the activities.

4) The teacher checks the activities for mistakes, typos, etc, then puts them on the class blog at least 48 hours before the Cheese. Students can look at the activities and help each other prepare.

5) She only thing not allowed is printing out and bringing the completed Cheese to class.

6) At the end of each tasks students get to rate the activities between terrible and great, depending on how much they liked it or how relevant they found it.

7) Students can miss up to 4 activities (one per activity type {grammar-vocabulary-reading-writing}) -they can’t drop all the grammar activities – obviously ;-)

8) Students correct the activities they have set for the rest of the group (eg. the group which produced the grammar activities correct the grammar port of everyone’s Cheese). This – together with the score given by the students – gives them great feedback on how good (doable/fair) their task was and next time they will try to do better.

So yes, I still have my end-of-unit tests but there is a lot more to it than me sitting at home at night coming up with hard enough questions to prove to the little bastards that they know nothing and I am king and then me sitting at night at home gleefully enjoying giving bad grades to the students who failed to learn what I have taught.

Tests should be about what students know, can know and want  to know. They should be a celebration of achievement, a prize giving and not trench warfare, where everyone loses – resources, time, opportunities.

grading-comicsGrading is not just about the summative stuff. My favourite is the so-called Mündlich (oral) grade. This – I was instructed by my very helpful superiors – is the grade you can give for their work during class, or for forgetting their homework, or leaving their books at home. So basically I said it’s the disciplining grade, you give it to punish students. Well, you won’t be surprised that my Mündlich grades are all 1s (which is the best grade in the German system) because I appreciate work done, I tend to assign as little homework as possible, if I give homework it is because it needs more time and effort so it deserves a real grade for real effort, if they leave their book at home they will use it with someone else, they need only one book per group anyway ;-)

Punishing students with grades, imposing authority by telling students that they don’t know something we think is important is not what I see grades as.

A new feature of these posts is going to be the “My Ideal School” paragraph. I have been playing around with this utopian school I would set up and it sort of makes sense to me. No it’s not a mass production line but it is based on the idea of collaboration, community, parent involvement, across ages, cross-curricular and independent. Building a system of trust and administrative restrictions are completely  subordinated to the needs of the students and the desires of the teachers.

In my ideal school there are no grades, students know exactly where they stand because the teachers care enough to tell them what and how they can develop to do better.

In my ideal school students learn what they want to learn, they get to choose who they want to learn with (never from) and when they want to learn – oh, it’s difficult to organise? Indeed it is but education is NOT about what is the most convenient for the administrator but what the   student needs most to be able to do their best.

It has been a fun couple of days since the last entry. We have had our first face-to-face session, which was really inspiring, especially because it put my mind to rest with regards to my readiness to embrace the challenge: this seem like to be a small community of really open and enthusiastic people who look forward to learning something new together.

You often hear people say that there is no such thing as a stupid question but you sort of know when you are being stupid. In this community however there seems to be an honest desire to blunder around together and find out things.

The second big step was to wander into the world created by the fantastic Jeff Kuhn. It was great to see how we went around first destroying things he had created and then trying to rebuild it and then create new things. The chat is a fantastic tool which really is a source of regular comic relief, occasional idle banter, and frequent learning, support and sharing;  like any real learning environment should be – I believe.

Then there was the more concentrated effort yesterday when a few of us met up in Jeff’s world and started riding horses, building things and getting great instructions and support from our young but extremely professional tutors – just meeting Filip is worth being part of this EVO.

I also managed to finish up my Introduction today, with my own screenshot as a background to the recorded Prezi.

And perhaps the most exciting was my daughter, Sophie (5) venturing into Minecraft for the first time ever. She’s heard of it and seen older kids playing but she’s never tried it before. It was great to see how much she enjoyed it.

Sophie playing Minecraft for the first time

Sophie playing Minecraft for the first time

I got so brazen that I even ventured into a Single Player survival game and although I died a series of gruesome deaths I started getting the hang of it more and more .

The big question still lingers: How can this be educational? How can I use the energy, time and effort my students use in Minecraft to supporting and enhancing their language learning. – We have four more weeks to figure that out and if the learning remains at the same pace I am sure there will soon be a host of possible answers.

keep looking »